Meet Malek Gheni, rising star of Tunisian fashion

Malek Gheni during Tunis Fashion Week in June 2019. Supplied
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Updated 16 October 2020

Meet Malek Gheni, rising star of Tunisian fashion

  • Gheni’s work is inspired by religious history and architecture

PARIS: The rapturous receptions accorded designer Malek Gheni during Tunis Fashion Week in June 2019 led to one local magazine dubbing him “the new genius of Tunisian fashion.” Not bad for a debut showing.

“I was surprised because this was my first collection. It’s a trigger in my career,” Gheni tells Arab News.

Despite that success, Gheni faces many inherent challenges in his homeland.

“Tunisia is a virgin land in the fashion industry,” he says. “There are only three or four very famous stylists. There are no raw materials. We manage with our means. I feel isolated here. There are not a lot of opportunities. Even well-known designers have difficulty communicating and networking with the Arab world and Europe. I work a lot but I feel that, even when you reach the top, it is very difficult to export your work.” In order to tackle that, he intends to develop his address book and above all participate in events abroad.

So, can the native of Nabeul, in north-eastern Tunisia, change the paradigm?

The 27-year-old gained prominence since his remarkable appearance on “Project Runway Middle East.” Supplied

The 27-year-old has experienced a dramatic rise in profile since his remarkable appearance on “Project Runway Middle East,” — MBC’s regional version of the hugely popular fashion show, which showcases young talents from the Arab world in the field of fashion and design.

Gheni gained recognition for his unique perspective — distinctly modern but with a definite historic bent, as was apparent in that debut collection in Tunis Fashion Week.

“In 2019, I presented my first collection with 14 dresses. And the presence of waders on the catwalk was very noticed and appreciated,” he says. “This collection has two distinct styles because I’m a bit schizophrenic: On the one hand, there’s the bling and the sequins, but on the other hand, it was very simple and monastic, with a little touch of embroidery. As for the dresses, they were short, but with very significant geometric shapes, because I am hugely inspired by the architecture of churches.”

While the collection was praised for its modernity, it was actually inspired by the Amish, a reclusive Christian religious community with its roots in Europe but perhaps most-famous in America, that mostly eschews the trappings of modern life.

The designer is hugely inspired by the architecture of churches. Supplied

“I undertook a lot of research. I read a lot. I like to present collections that have a story,” says Gheni. “I wanted to tell the story of Amish women who chose to leave this community to discover the modern world — fashion, as well as bright colors. Hence the presence of strong colors,” he explains.

As Gheni already suggested, religion has long been an inspiration for his work. “In fashion, there are no borders. We feel a connection with other cultures,” he says. “In my childhood, I remember how I felt something when I saw the architecture of churches on television. At Esmod (the French fashion school), all of my collections were related to the theme of the church. My graduation project was also a collection of embroidered dresses and church-inspired designs.

In 2019, he presented his first collection with 14 dresses. Supplied

The young designer always aims to push the envelope, as he did in that debut collection by highlighting an element that is often hidden or ignored in fashion shows: shoes. Footwear will continue to be a focus of his work, he says: “I am preparing a collection. My goal is to create a new brand of shoes. I got this passion from my father who is a shoe designer. Collaborating with him will be incredible and of course I will be able to do it with my personal touch.”

Gheni says his ultimate goal is to “leave a signature in the field of fashion for posterity.” To do that, he will continue to allow himself to be guided by emotion and intuition.

“When I’m drawing a sketch, I let myself be guided by playing with the lines and, little by little, it gives birth to a dress,” he says. “It’s as if I’m a puppet.”

The great escape: Qasr Al Sarab

Updated 27 November 2020

The great escape: Qasr Al Sarab

DUBAI: The colors change depending on which direction you’re facing or what time of day it is. The shifting sands ripple in undulating, multi-colored waves — rusty oranges, wisps of silver, shimmering gold. The colors depend on the minerals in the sand, but also on the effects of the ever-present sun, beating down on one of the world’s harshest and most desolate landscapes.

This is the Rub’ Al-Khali, or Empty Quarter. At 650,000 square kilometers, this giant desert is larger than France, and straddles four countries — Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and the UAE. It is the largest uninterrupted sand desert in the world.

Of course, given that the majority of the Gulf region consists almost exclusively of desert, that may not sound especially impressive. But comparing this vast swathe of towering dunes to any other desert is to do it a significant disservice. Not least because, on the UAE side, it is also home to the magnificent Qasr Al Sarab hotel.

Anantara Pool Villa Terrace. Supplied

Nestled in a desert valley with soaring dunes to the left and right and salt flats in front, the hotel announces itself with stone towers, grand trellises and water features, resembling an old Arabian fortress town.

Qasr Al Sarab is basically the only structure for miles around — a lone ship adrift in a sea of sand. So the hotel must sustain itself, given it’s two hours from Abu Dhabi and about 45 minutes from any other notable township. The hotel recycles all its water, has its own sewage plant, and even grows its own fruits and vegetables in a desert greenhouse.

The hotel, which reopened on August 15 having been closed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been busy preparing for the return of guests. Especially those from the local market. There’s a newly refurbished gym (complete with Technogym equipment), new kid’s club and a revamped pool area. The on-site restaurants offer traditional options — via a Bedouin-style outdoor, tented area —as well as more modern ones in the rooftop steakhouse, Suhail.

The on-site restaurants offer traditional options as well as more modern ones in the rooftop steakhouse, Suhail. Supplied

The hotel library is stocked with historic books and information on the landscape just beyond the windows. It’s the perfect place to read up on the Empty Quarter’s ecosystem: the fearsome and the tame alike. Although it seems devoid of life at first glance the desert is actually home to plenty. Keep your eyes peeled for snakes, sand foxes, gazelles, birds, scorpions and camel spiders. The Abu Dhabi government has been working on an oryx rehabilitation program, releasing Arabian oryx into the protected area near the hotel.

And the hotel itself hosts numerous animals. A small population of Arabian horses and camels take guests on treks through the dunes at sunrise, while six Saluki dogs, traditionally trained for hunting by nomadic Arabian tribes, perform shows with the hotel’s falcons. But if you’re really looking for something to get your heart racing —and stomach churning — head out for some dune bashing. It is, of course, a favored pastime wherever you are in the UAE, but the size of the dunes in the Empty Quarter means the experience is even more hair-raising than usual. Any rollercoaster will forevermore pale in comparison to an hour in a Nissan Patrol with skilled driver Waris, one of the most experienced dune bashers in the area. He was on location with the crew of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and was also charged with taking the new Bentley Bentayga for a spin to test its capabilities.

The size of the dunes in the Empty Quarter means the experience of dune bashing is even more hair-raising than usual. Shutterstock

After a lie down to recover, evening entertainment comes in the form of pitching up under the stars. The vastness of the night sky seems more obvious here, the stars clearer than anywhere else in the country — a particular shock to city-dwellers so unaccustomed to the wonders of a clear sky. Here, the peace and tranquility seem almost otherworldly; just as explorer Wilfred Thesiger described the area 70 years ago in “Arabian Sands,” when he wrote: “It was very still with the silence which we have driven from our world.”

It may have gained five-star lodgings since then, but this magnificent desert remains fundamentally unchanged.